BUENOS AIRES -- "Last Images of the Shipwreck" suffered the usual fate of a good Argentine movie.

It won Best Script, Best Actress and Best Movie honors at film festivals in Montreal, Havana and Biarritz, France, last year. At home, about 50,000 Argentines paid to see it.

"I'm proud of it ... {but} economically, it was a disaster," director Elisio Subiela said.

Many recent Argentine films have been marked by high praise and empty seats. "The Official Story" was ignored by moviegoers until it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1985 and was re-released.

Several years ago, "Last Images of the Shipwreck" might have been considered a success because of the international prizes. Today, it is viewed as a failure because of the box office.

Argentina's movie industry is changing priorities and themes, in part because it is on the verge of collapse. State support has dried up, movie fans watch more at home on video and cable TV and local productions have to search overseas for financing.

"The industry is living through a crisis that has structural overtones," said Octavio Getino, director of the National Institute of Cinematography.

Overall attendance dropped to 25 million last year, from 64 million in 1984. Nearly four of every 10 theaters opened five years ago have shut down.

The decline in attendance at Argentine films was even steeper: to 1.2 million from 11.6 million. In 1987, five of the top 10 grossing films were Argentine. Last year, there were only two.

As few as seven local films will be made this year, compared to about 40 in 1986. Only successful directors can line up financing, much of which comes from Europe and the United States. Many actors now work abroad.

The downturn has been sudden even considering the topsy-turvy industry whose fortunes reflect four decades of political coups and economic instability.

In the 1940s and early '50s, Buenos Aires was a sort of Hollywood South. Five production companies churned out dozens of films a year, mostly lowbrow comedies that were hits up and down the continent.

The 1980s, in contrast, saw serious films with political and social messages honored at Cannes and screened in New York and Los Angeles -- developments that rarely happened before.

The 1976-83 military dictatorship, which censured 727 films, provided rich material for moviemakers. The "dirty war" on leftist subversion was the backdrop for "The Official Story." The spurious and futile Falkland Islands War with Britain was the theme of "The Internal Debt."

Those and other Argentine films were angry shouts about events that for years a prudent person would whisper only to a friend. They upheld values that helped Argentines cope with innocent lives brutally torn apart, and to repair the country's international image.

Getino suggests the time has come for directors to move on to other, perhaps less somber, ideas. "I'm ... convinced that if a movie interests people, they'll pay to see it," he said. "Our directors have to find what that is."

Directors are searching.

"Last Images of the Shipwreck" is an offbeat love story about a would-be novelist who saves a woman he believes is about to throw herself in the path of a train. As they get to know each other, she inspires him to write.

Director Eduardo Mignona is putting the finishing touches on "Flop, the Argentine Marksman." The movie is based on the life of Florencio Parravicini, a turn-of-the-century stage actor whose specialty was shooting bullets through bottles without breaking them.

Maria Luisa Bemberg's film, "I, the Worst of All," premiered this summer. It is about Juana Ines de la Cruz, a nun who battled sexual stereotypes in 17th-century Mexico and today is acclaimed as one of the greatest poets of Spain's "Golden Age."

"I thought that through {her} I could tell a story about ... the fight of a free spirit to express herself," Bemberg said. "Juana ... was ... an advanced spirit, absolutely contemporary in the way she saw the world."

Bemberg's 1984 historical film, "Camila," was a rare artistic and commercial success. It was nominated for the best foreign film Oscar and drew 2 million people to the theater.

Making movies in Argentina has never been easy. Director Carlos Sorin underscored that point in "The King's Movie," a whimsical 1985 film about a 19th-century adventurer who briefly ruled the Araucanian Indians in southern Patagonia.

As filming drags on, funds run out and the cast quits. The director, ever resourceful, finally dresses up as the hero and rides through an army of mannequins who take the place of Indians. In the closing scene, he brainstorms his next project.

As fewer local movies are made and producers are forced to seek funds abroad, directors wonder who will put Argentina's ideas, music, scenery and people on film if Argentines cannot.

Elisio Subiela, who is vice president of the Argentina Film Directors association, argues there is only one way out: more state funding. That seems unlikely in the short run. The government of President Carlos Menem is faced with budget deficits, inflation and recession.

The National Institute of Cinematography budget in 1985 was $11 million. So far this year, it has received $200,000.